Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Go Back to Rockville 

Via Atrios, we find the honorable Representative Dingell of Michigan upping the snark lever considerably in a pithy letter to Gregory "Unnatural Vowel/Consonant Combination" Mankiw, High Elder of the Council of Economic Advisers. This is but a small dent in that huge glacial feeling that everyone is crazy but you, but as we've seen recently, glaciers are so the last 600-800 million years.

Here's a hint, everyone -- snark will win the war.

The new populism is based on having a big collective laugh at the other guy, not that "Two Americas" crap. Everyone says they love the "positive" campaigning, but everyone says they attend church regularly and church parking lots do not bear that out.

I'm not calling for attack ads, I'm not even calling for distorting or misrepresenting the Other Side. Their real-life positions and missteps are already ridiculous enough, as Dingell's letter shows. I'm saying we exploit this through savage mockery.

Now I said ol-fashioned populism wouldn't work, but that's not entirely true. I think some "soak the rich"-style Huey P. Long rhetoric would go over great, at least in the short run. And the Kingfish brings me to my next point:

Why did Eisenhower beat Stevenson? Because Adlai was mocked as an "egghead" and Ike had an Irving Berlin song. Now, Bush is not an egghead. That's one of his strong points. But he doesn't have an Irving Berlin song either. Sure, they've adopted God Bless America, but I defy you to find someone outside of the Republican-wing of the Democratic Party who actually knows all the words to God Bless America, or who can sing it without accidentally starting into America the Beautiful half-way through.

But the thing is, we don't need to write a catchy Kerry jingle. Not only would it be hard to rhyme Kerry with anything that reflected well on him, but any serious "Every Man A King"-style campaign song would come off, at best, as a novelty amusement, and at worst, like the stupid and wrongheaded attempt at pandering it would be.

No, the secret was discovered by the NIke corporation some years ago, and more recently by the good volks at Volkswagon. You remember when it was a big deal that "Revolution" was in a shoe commerical? Good. Now remember when it was totally awesome that VW put Nick Drake in a car ad? Get it?

Advertising has this great ability to co-opt any and all aspects of culture and use them to sell things. When a subversive subculture is beaten down and stripped of its ability to subvert (let's say graffiti culture in NY, and what happened when the MTA started spraying all the trains with hazardous chemicals, effectively stealing back the canvas and burning it), the usable (non-revolutionary) bits are appropriated by advertising, where they are rendered fit for mass consumption.

Some people do this in a spectacularly inept fashion. Remember Lee Jeans and Fortunate Son? The ads had flags, all-American iconography, and the classic-rock of Creedence, but, well... they couldn't play any of the song besides the first line. You know, because that song is clearly and obviously subversive by the second line.

And boy, don't these lines:
Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another striptease
Hey man where'd you get
That lotion? Your skin starts
Itching once you buy the gimmick
About something called love
Oh love love love
That's like hypnotizing chickens
Well I am just a modern guy
Of course I've had it in the ear before

really make you want to take a Carnival Cruise? As soon as the invisible bugs escape through my fingernails, I'm calling my travel agent!

In other words, these companies used songs with messages contrary to their own. So did Nike and VW, in a sense, but they were subtle about it, and left room for claims of intentional irony. But the thing about the Democrats and left-wing causes in general is mainstream pop artists are largely in favor of their messages already. This simplifies things.

Now, I'm treading on dangerous ground here, laden with culture-war landmines. I'm not saying enlist Springsteen to write protest music (oh, horror of horrors). I'm saying take the existing, well-known and popular product, and associate yourself with it. This is much like Reagan quoting Born In the USA, only with this revolutionary new concept: Understanding what the song is about.

Here's the point: Very few of our elected officials have as good a command of mockery as Rep. Dingell. But Randy Newman does. Remember Mr. President (Have Pity On the Working Man)? That would work just fine as a campaign song right now. Can't you see the ad? You barely need more than the song.

But what would be, I think, the most effective campaign move since A-Bomb/Flower Girl would be accomplished with a song from Newman's most recent original album: "Big Hat, No Cattle."

The song isn't political at all, it's simply a character-study of a "self-made" man with no standards of decency, no principles, and no redeeming qualities. He lies pathologically, he's all bluster, he's reminiscent of that guy Gary Trudeau signifies with a Big Hat (and no Cattle).

Imagine the song blanketing the airwaves -- all over talk radio of course -- and a tv campaign featuring only the song and information about the President's upbringing, his questionable relationship to Texas, the fact that his "ranch" was purchased shortly before the 2000 campaign, his blue-blood lineage, and his lack of any sort of authenticity.

The song is catchy, upbeat, sounds more authentically "Country" than Clint Black, and has a message unsubtle enough for Mom, Pop, and the Kids to enjoy and understand.

And it's snarky.

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